COVID-19 restrictions could have disrupted an important link for the parents and children who count on the county’s Stronger Together program, but staff who run the program aren’t letting that happen. Stronger Together is a lifeline that keeps families in challenging situations in contact while living apart. The carefully constructed program offers a safe location for visits or exchanges from one parent to another. There are protections in place to strengthen the parent-child bond while preventing unnecessary stress, complicated adult conflicts and safety issues. Stronger Together keeps families safe — and connected.
The program is run by the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Services’ Domestic Relations Unit. Domestic violence is the number one contributing factor to the need for these services.
Before COVID-19, children could visit with their non-custodial parent in a cheerful playroom at the visitation center located in the Historic Courthouse or parents were able to exchange children for off-site stays through the program. In the beginning of March, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, the staff had to revamp their procedures — in a week.
Safe Exchanges, Virtual Connections
Staff quickly figured out a way to allow for safe exchanges between parents by using separate parking lots around the Historic Courthouse for drop-offs and pick-ups. “But they miss going inside to the playrooms and ask if their favorite toys and games are still there,” notes Lori Wymore-Kirkland, the program manager. “The kids are really ready to get back to normal, but they have adjusted well, making the best of things.” The exchanges include temperature checks, face coverings, gloves and social distancing.
Being separated from a parent can be traumatic and isolating. Before the COVID-19 restrictions, families who were not part of the exchange program could spend time individually visiting on a regular basis with their children in the visitation center. When this was no longer an option, staff created monitored virtual visits available seven days a week. “During COVID-19 the need for kids, who can range from infants up to teenagers, to see that the parent they do not live with is okay is extremely important,” points out Wymore-Kirkland.
Keeping them connected is significant, even when things are not perfect. “There is so much that is different, just being able to hear your parent’s voice or see their face can be a huge comfort,” explains Wymore-Kirkland. “Whether it’s for five minutes or two hours.” Staff work with parents on ideas, games and suggestions to assist them in connecting with their kids. Sometimes they read books, play hangman, dance or sing. “We practice informed neutrality, respecting the culture and the parenting choices of each family while addressing any safety issues that arise,” she says.
Connecting to Range of Resources
Staff connects with clients regularly despite the ongoing crisis — exploring and investigating answers to questions they are struggling with, assisting in setting up distance learning. Staff members have also helped connect multiple families with resources for answering court-related concerns, domestic violence services and food donations.
For families that can’t visit virtually or be part of an exchange, case managers check in by phone. Staff encourage pictures and updates, which helps non-custodial parents know how their children are doing.
As COVID-19 impacts the entire nation, Stronger Together program staff members have collaborated in trainings and webinars on a local and national level on the safety implications of providing services during this time of crisis and how to adapt.
Gratitude is the main feedback from the families: “My family is more peaceful because the staff has been so creative, police do not show up at my door and my daughter still sees her dad. It is keeping us all safe,” said one mother.